Jewish Lawmakers Shake Up New York Politics

Jeff Klein and Simcha Felder Hand Senate Keys to Republicans

Switching Sides: Democrats thought they had control of New York’s state Senate after winning a majority of seats. Jeffrey Klein and Simcha Felder had other thoughts in mind.
courtesy of jeffrey klein
Switching Sides: Democrats thought they had control of New York’s state Senate after winning a majority of seats. Jeffrey Klein and Simcha Felder had other thoughts in mind.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published December 31, 2012, issue of January 04, 2013.
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New York’s state Senate is in disarray, due in part to two Jewish politicians who have broken away from the Democratic Party to which the state’s Jews have been historically bound.

Democrats thought they would win control of the New York Senate this year, allowing the party to completely dominate the state’s legislative and executive branches. Those plans were scuttled when Jeffrey Klein and Simcha Felder struck deals with the Republican Senate leadership. The two politicians’ spoiler roles come as a growing Orthodox community continues to erode Jewish support for Democrats — loosening traditional bonds between Jewish politicians and the Democratic party.

Simcha Felder
Simcha Felder

Klein and Felder each represent districts that are home to vastly different sorts of influential Jewish communities: ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn Jews in Felder’s case and upper-middle-class Jews from Riverdale, in the Bronx, and from neighboring Westchester County in Klein’s case.

By allying with the Republicans, both have emerged as kingmakers in a legislative body where backbenchers can be all but irrelevant. And both have decided that their constituents won’t hold their deal-making against them.

“I don’t think it’s much about policy,” said Richard Stein, publisher of the Riverdale Press, a local newspaper in Klein’s district, speaking specifically about Klein’s move. “Really it’s about power.”

The deal Klein negotiated will make him co-leader of the Senate with the head of the Republican caucus. For decades, political power in the country’s second most populous state has been wielded almost exclusively by Albany’s so-called “three men in a room” — the governor and the leaders of the state house and state Senate. Now, Klein will be the room’s fourth man.

The recent history of New York’s state Senate is one of dramatic political maneuvering amidst intra-partisan backstabbing. Republicans controlled the body for decades, then lost the majority by a narrow margin after the 2008 elections. A group of Democratic defectors reversed that Democratic victory and sparked a month-long leadership crisis in 2009. Republicans then won the majority during the 2010 elections, but seemed to have lost it again on Election Day this past November. Then came an announcement from Felder.


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